Newt Gingrich's blast at the State Department in a well-publicized speech this week was much more than it seems. It was really a message to President Bush from conservatives like the former House Speaker, asking the president to change his foreign policy.
The basic message: The United States is too timid in the post-Sept. 11 world in protecting America's safety and forcing democracy on terrorist-supporting nations.
The so-called neoconservatives like Mr. Gingrich don't want US business interests, treaties, tepid allies, or the United Nations to get in the way of that purpose.
Many of their criticisms are valid. US and foreign businessmen are sometimes too eager to deal with tyrants and egregious abusers of human rights. International treaties are often vague, unverifiable, and not taken seriously. The European allies gripe when the US leads, complain as much when it doesn't, and often can't agree among themselves. The UN is good at delivering humanitarian aid and development programs, but frequently fails in the face of human rights violations, genocide, and civil wars.
In light of all this, these "neocons" say, the US must stand on its own and take whatever actions it must to prevent another Sept 11-style attack by Islamist terrorists. The rest of the world will carp, but eventually fall into line. To them, the US has the means to get its way; it just needs the will.
As part of that strategy, they see Israel, a democracy in a sea of Arab despotism, under regular attack from similar terrorists. Therefore the US must support Israel's right-wing policies toward the Palestinians at all costs. Gingrich and many others, on Capitol Hill and in the administration, have allied themselves with Israel's hard-line governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Thus Gingrich also attacked the president's yet-to-be-released "road map" that aims to create a Palestinian state within three years. He calls working with the UN, the European Union, and Russia on this peace plan a "failure" of US diplomacy. Such views are held not just by GOP conservatives, but by many Democrats who support Israel's right-wing government as well.
While the US should always ensure Israel's existence, Mr. Bush has acknowledged that the US war on terrorism would be better served if Israel helped form a Palestinian state. Israel will eventually need to live next to a Palestinian state, which even Mr. Sharon now admits. The US doesn't need to live with Al Qaeda. The claims of the Israeli religious right to the settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip must not hinder the US war on terrorism.
Most Israelis know they must make concessions, such as withdrawing from most, if not all, of the settlements. Otherwise, their economy will continue to shrink and be kept afloat only by American aid, with large numbers of Israelis emigrating. Without rapid progress toward a Palestinian state, Al Qaeda and other groups will have one more excuse to rally Arabs into attacking the US homeland. On that point, Bush fundamentally disagrees with the neocons.
The alternative, which some US and Israeli conservatives advocate, is to threaten invasion of other state supporters of terrorism - especially Syria, and perhaps Iran (even though Al Qaeda's main grass-roots support is in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan).
At a practical level, this would be military overreach. US armed forces are already stretched thin. Invading Saddam Hussein's Iraq had its own unique justification.
The last thing the US needs is more Muslims believing it is building an anti-Islam empire on top of the world's main oil deposits.
Bush so far has kept a balanced approach in reshaping the Middle East. He's taken a tough line toward Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who was forced this week by US, European, and Egyptian pressure to cede much of his authority to a prime minister who appears willing to rein in anti-Israel militants.
And, unless the neocons get their way, Bush plans to release the "road map" that defines the steps Israel and the Palestinians must take.
A sparing, cautious use of force and smart diplomacy toward other nations - including those the US doesn't like - remain the best defense against terrorism.